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ANALYSIS: Lawyers Want Both In-Office Socializing and No Commute

July 20, 2021, 9:00 AM

Working from home has made many reassess the way they feel about the office. Lawyers are weighing whether they want to return and what practical benefits the office actually provides. Many are looking forward to reconnecting with their co-workers and having more separation between work and home. But, paradoxically, many are also less than excited about resuming their commute and returning to less flexible work hours.

As law firms and corporations plan the reopening of their offices, they should consider and weigh how lawyers feel about the move back, and use this input to help maximize the benefits and minimize the struggles lawyers might face.

Lawyers Are Divided on Returning to the Office

Bloomberg Law’s Attorney Workload and Hours Survey results for first-quarter 2021 show that attorneys who have to deal with return-to-office (RTO) measures are nearly evenly divided on their feelings of whether they actually want to return to the office.

To find out more, we asked respondents about their concerns regarding returning to the office, as well as aspects they are looking forward to.

Perceived Drawbacks of RTO

The commute and perceived lack of flexibility that RTO brings topped survey respondents’ concerns. But respondents are not as concerned about decreased productivity; potential exposure to, and insufficient safety measures against, Covid-19; and difficulty with family care arrangements.

A large part of being a lawyer is efficiently and profitably using your time. And for many lawyers, maximizing billable hours is a daily pressure. That could explain why a majority of respondents dread the time lost to commuting and the lack of flexibility that come with returning to the office. When they return, gone will be the days of waking up not long before work, putting on a professional outfit from only the waist up, and starting their day via video conference. Back will be the days of suits and professional attire, daily commutes, and in-person meetings.

The lesser concerns over decreased productivity and family care arrangements dovetail with those about flexibility and the commute. When working from home, lawyers can more easily adjust their time to work on legal projects, handle personal matters, and assist with any family needs. When back at the office, these aspects of work and life become more complicated and inflexible.

With the Delta variant of Covid-19 surging, it’s no surprise that some lawyers are also concerned about exposure and preventive measures. And with exposure comes not only health problems, but work issues too. Many legal projects are not staffed to easily manage extended absences and family care, but client and business needs continue regardless of whether individuals need to be isolating.

Perceived Benefits of RTO

On the positive side, survey results also show that most respondents look forward to the opportunity to see their co-workers, the ability to better separate work and home, and the change of pace that the office provides. However, fewer are looking forward to aspects such as office amenities, potentially increased productivity, or seeing clients in person.

The data suggest a dichotomy in how lawyers and other professionals feel: They want to delineate between home and work, they desire interaction and collaboration with their co-workers, and they welcome the change of pace that leaving the homebound workspace will provide. But they do not necessarily see the office as a boon to their productivity or widely yearn for office-based amenities.

For law firms and corporations that want to encourage RTO, highlighting the perceived positive elements of the office—such as co-worker collaboration and socializing, the separation between work and home, and the change of pace that the office brings—may be a good start.

Regardless of how lawyers feel about the return to the office, the results show that there are things that they look forward to at the office as well as aspects of RTO that concern them. The return to the office is uncharted territory—just as the initial work from home setup was, a year and a half ago—and how it is handled by law firms and corporations could have lasting impacts on morale, retention, and productivity.

Bloomberg Law subscribers can find additional resources on our In Focus: Legal Operations page.

Related content that is free to everyone is available on our In Focus: Lawyer Well-Being page.

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